Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Choose your own green?

There has always been some suspicion about whether various rating schemes actually delivered reliable guidance about the sustainability credentials of buildings.  

The three major such tools, LEED from the US, BREAM from the UK and GreenStar from Australia are all spawned by the 'property industry' with perhaps three dominant objectives:
  • To incorporate as far as possible a comprehensive set of 'indicators' of sustainability;
  • To foster 'industry transformation' by creating the incentives for a greater proportion of developments to adopt better standards than the minimum compliance mandated by local authorities; and 
  • To maintain self-regulation in the face of likely and imminent government requirements.
Actually, it would be hard to get the industry bodies such as the Green Building Council to publicly admit to the last objective.  But the two other objectives seem reasonable enough, nay, even praiseworthy.  And indeed, there is undeniable evidence that the schemes have had some success.  The chief success, arguably, has been that the ubiquitous 'star ratings' have become the headline marketing tool for premium office buildings as they compete for tenants.
The reliability of these 'points accumulation schemes' in reflecting actual enhanced performance, is worthy of several separate posts, and I won't attempt that discussion here.  Let's just say that whatever may be dodgy in the detail, these ratings only really work if they retain some authoritative comparability between buildings submitted to them.  You have to be at least able to say that you expect Building A to be 'better' than Building B, because it has a higher score using the same criteria.
So it is with some bemusement that in the one week, I have come across two announcements that publicize the credentials of buildings, seemingly flouting that principle.

Australia’s first Green Star hotel on the horizon utilised custom-built rating tool is the heading of an article in Architecture & Design.  At first pass that doesn't seem so problematic, especially if you are aware of the steady rate at which the Green Building Council of Australia has been introducing the building type specific variations of its core rating tool.  The sting for me is buried further into the article, where it points out that "GEOCON (the developer)now has exclusive use of this Green Star rating tool, and Abode Woden has been registered to achieve Green Star certification"  Eh?  So to what is this building being compared?

Once riled, I couldn't help reflect that the thinly editorialised press release also fails to mention the Green Globe rating system, which is the global certification for sustainable tourism. That scheme has been in place for a good ten years. The buildings component of the ratings tool was developed by the then Centre for Sustainable Built Environments at UNSW, but certification requires more than just building ratings, and commits operators to a 'continuous improvement' cycle to maintain the initial ratings for a facility and its operation.

The second announcement was in Sourceable, touting "the first residential building of its size to be certified under a ‘six-leaf’ sustainability rating by the Urban Development Institute of Australia (UDIA)".

Who?  What?  The UDIA turns out to be “Australia’s peak representative body for all segments of the urban development industry”.  In other words a lobby group.  Their EnviroDevelopment certification turns out to be, in their own words, “a scientifically-based branding system designed to make it easier for purchasers to recognise and, thereby, select more environmentally sustainable homes and lifestyles”.  Digging further  yields “An EnviroDevelopment license is valid for a period of 12 months from the date of approval by the EnviroDevelopment Board of Management. However, certification and use of the logo suite is only granted after the licencing agreement and statutory declaration has been signed by both parties and all fees have been paid”. 

Of course, I downloaded the EnviroDevelopment Technical Standards .  I found a very nice checklist template under six useful categories, which referred sporadically to earning points……but nowhere did I find any indication of the number of points you have to earn to gain certification.  I guess the kindest interpretation is that if there isn’t a minimum score for compliance, unlike with LEED or GreenStar, a developer can’t be accused of chasing the easiest points.  All-in-all, I couldn’t quite work out why this scheme is really needed, given that its general thrust and detailed checklists are so hauntingly similar to GreenStar.

I have felt for some time that established ratings had lost any meaningful influence on the design process.  But these two announcements seem to suggest we had reached the point where you can either find at will a whole new ratings scheme to credential yourself under, as long as you pay the license fee, or, I suspect, invent one to suit yourself.  I am now waiting for a breathless announcement about a project, ‘branded’ with some sustainability certification to which I can’t even find any google search links. 

the first residential building of its size to be certified under a ‘six-leaf’ sustainability rating by the Urban Development Institute of Australia (UDIA). - See more at:
the first residential building of its size to be certified under a ‘six-leaf’ sustainability rating by the Urban Development Institute of Australia (UDIA). - See more at:
the first residential building of its size to be certified under a ‘six-leaf’ sustainability rating by the Urban Development Institute of Australia (UDIA). - See more at:


haydenco said...

The discussion is quite thick when addressing the plethora of rating schemes aimed at raising the bar of sustainability credentials. However seems that in relation to Office, Hotel and Residential developments, the Green Star Rating system isn't necessarily the best for addressing the issue of a buildings performance (in a sustainable sense).
The NABERS (National Australian Built Environment Rating System) I believe is much better in indicating a buildings’ efficiency in such aspects as indoor environment quality, energy consumption, water usage, and waste. This is because Green Star only determines a buildings’ sustainability credentials at the time of construction and completion, whereas NABERS is only measured once the building is in use after 1 year (minimum of 75% occupancy for a whole building rating). At the design stage, it is all well and good to design fantastic strategies that will supposedly address all these environmental concerns; however, unless the strategies are implemented correctly by the occupants and enforced by the owners, the entire design process is a farce. What I also find interesting about NABERS is its mandatory commitment agreement whereby the building’s owner has to publicize its NABERS rating to all potential prospective businesses, tenants and buyers.

Catriona Bisset said...

Nishi Apartment Buildings, Canberra

This Easter I travelled back to my hometown of Canberra to visit my family for Easter. On the car trip home from the bus station in Civic (central Canberra) I always pass the NewActon development and the multi-use Nishi building. Designed by Suppose Design Office (Tokyo) and Fender Katsalidis Architects (Melbourne) in conjunction with engineering consultant group, ARUP (London), this building contains around 200 Japanese inspired apartments , a cinema, commercial spaces, a gym, and a hotel. Amongst other things, the building boasts various achievements in sustainability ratings. The Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency has chosen the Nishi development as its new headquarters.

In the light of your blog post, I noticed that a lot of the rating systems talked about were ones I had never heard before so I decided it would be interesting to do some research (especially about a building in my hometown). The featured design aspects are as follow:

- the largest single building-installed solar panel array in Australia and generate over 500,000kw h of electricity annually.

- 8 star NatHERS rating (average rating of Canberra homes is 2.5) (

- 6 star Green Star Office design rating, the highest available from the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA)

- 5 star NABERS water rating (the highest rating), through recycling water and reducing water use

- bathrooms include 6 star WELS rated sensor taps to reduce water wastage, 4 star WELS rated toilets, 6 star windows (

- natural cross-flow ventilation, abundance of natural light, ‘skins’ to moderate internal temperatures, highest performance double glazed window, hydronic heating, and non-toxic sustainable materials and timbers (

Many more of these features or ‘facts’ are listed on the Molonglo Group website shown above.

In regard to the rating systems, NatHERS is system run by the Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments through the Ministerial Council on Energy. The Green Star system is run by the Green Building Council Australia. NABERS is a general building rating also managed by the government, and WELS is a national water usage rating system.

All these rating systems are reliably managed systems (mainly by government), and it’s good that there is such a wide range of systems used as they all have their own limitations (as Hayden stated). Thankfully they didn't use any property developer managed rating systems. The Nishi building has obvious high performance environmental aspects. However, to a regular person, seeing these ratings in an advertisement for this building is confusing and potentially misleading. Also there are other potentially more stringent design and rating standards used overseas such as the Passivhaus standard from Germany and other European countries.

Another factor to be considered is that the actual performance of the building is strongly affected by the behaviour of the occupants, i.e. no rating can prevent someone from leaving the windows open with the heating turned up.